It’s hard not to giggle at the clumsy, clownish walk of a brown pelican. But their graceful flying in precise formations is awe-inspiring.

Bill Portlock, a retired educator with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, became interested in them years ago when he first saw them “plunge diving” — making a headfirst dive from as much as 65 feet up, zooming arrowlike with folded wings into water for food. Their expanding gular (throat) pouches can scoop up to three gallons of water while catching fish.

The quirky birds will soon return to the Chesapeake Bay after wintering on the Southern coast. They are fascinating to observe but even more interesting after learning about their survival story.

Amazing comeback of species

In 1970, brown pelicans were put on the U.S. government’s endangered species list. The insect-killing chemical

DDT, which had been used for several decades, contaminated fish, the pelicans’ main food source. The chemical harmed the pelicans’ abilities to breed.

“Their eggshells were too thin to allow successful incubation by their parents,” Portlock said. DDT was banned in 1972.

Not regularly seen around the Bay until 1987, there were 63 breeding pairs of brown pelicans in 1993 and more than 900 pairs by the late 1990s. They were taken off the endangered species list in 2009, and today there are more than 2,500 pairs.

“Climate change creates an expanded breeding season,” said Dave Brinker, central region ecologist with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.

Warm weather lasts beyond summer. With islands free of raccoons and other pelican-chick predators and water full of fish called menhaden to eat, “pelicans found the Bay and liked it,” Brinker said.

Coping with frostbite

Most brown pelicans migrate south for the winter. Even there, sudden cold snaps can happen as they did this year.

On Oak Island, North Carolina, in late February, Sea Biscuit Wildlife Shelter treated 16 juvenile brown pelicans having problems moving and eating because of frostbite on their feet and in their gular pouches.

“Some young pelicans make poor choices,” said Mary Ellen Rogers, the shelter’s founder. Adult pelicans typically know to head to warmer areas before getting frostbite.

Rogers’s patients are being released now that the temperatures are consistently above 40 degrees.

“Most of the frostbite issues are mild and healing. Only a couple might lose enough web tissue to [prevent] release,” she said.

Brown pelicans also face habitat loss as rising sea levels and more frequent storms flood their breeding sites.

“They are constantly searching for suitable nesting habitats,” said coastal biologist Ruth Boettcher of Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources.

Ability to adapt their nests

Five years ago, a storm washed out their usual sandy ground-nesting site on Wreck Island (a barrier island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore). Pelicans moved into large shrubs and small trees typically occupied by herons and ibises.

“There is constant competition for higher ground,” Boettcher said.

That nesting adaptability helps. “Forty percent of all water birds in the Bay are declining in population because of habitat loss, but pelicans and cormorants are increasing,” Portlock said.

But scientists need to keep an eye on the birds, which Portlock called “early messengers” of how their environment is doing. A rise or decline in population can indicate environmental changes or the presence of toxic substances that could also affect humans.

“They’re not only fun to watch,” he said, “they can give us a window into their world and ours.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story said a change in pelican population could indicate the presence of toxins that could also affect humans. Toxins are poisons made from living things (snake venom, for example). “Toxic substances,” or man-made poisons, better reflects what the population change may indicate. The story has been updated.

Fun facts

●The brown pelican is the state bird of Louisiana, which is known as the “Pelican State.”

Adult brown pelicans, the smallest of eight pelican species in the world, stand about four feet tall.

●Male pelicans gather material for nests, while female pelicans build the nest.

● Pelicans incubate eggs with their webbed feet.

●They live to about 25 years old.

●Pelican fossils, with many anatomical similarities to modern pelicans, date to 30 million to 40 million years ago.

Learn more

● Cornell University has information at this website: allaboutbirds.org/guide/Brown_Pelican/overview.

● Smithsonian researchers are learning about brown pelicans in the Chesapeake Bay. Website:
bit.ly/3s7zsyH.

● Look for them in the wild around small towns and marinas in the middle and lower Chesapeake Bay areas, or along Atlantic Ocean beaches from Maryland south. Pelicans love perching on posts where fishing boats come and go.